You read it often on messageboards throughout the ‘net: “But that still isn’t proof that (this vaccine, that GM food, this method) is safe! It’s all a huge experiment by the scientists, and we’re all guinea pigs!”. This despite the fact that the product or method under discussion (CIO, DTP vaccines, infant forumla or GM food) has been around for decades, millions have people have used it with no apparent harm or even much apparent benefit, or there are numerous studies which show no link whatsoever between the accused and the harm it’s alleged to have caused.
The argument these anti-whatevers (and it’s always an anti-something who raises this) are appealing to is called the precautionary principle. This very sensible prinicple – which states that the before adopting new concepts, their promoters have the burden of proving them safe beyond reasonable doubt – first was named in 1930s Germany, but has many precedents in phrases such as “better safe than sorry”, or in medicine, Primum non nocere (first, do no harm). In medicine in particular, one certainly can hark back to the Thalidomide disaster to illustrate what happens when scientific advances are inadequately tested in advance of their release to the general public.
But the notion that we must know every possible drawback to every change we make in the world in advance is not only unrealistic, it’s stifling. Nothing in this world is risk-free, and being the imperfect humans we are, there is no way we can possibly know everything about anything until we try it. This is not to say that rigorous testing of new products and new technologies (or even old ones, if suspicions are raised against them) is unnecessary. Nor is such testing a guarantee that shit will never happen – think about the Rotashield vaccine, Vioxx, or conversely, DES*, where side effects were not discovered until large numbers of people had used them, sometimes years after use. Nothing in life is guaranteed. However, unless we as a society are willing to assume some amount of risk in trying out new things, no progress will ever be made. And one must realize that failure to progress (not only in the obstetric sense) also has its risks. “Better the devil you know” is often a very unwise course of action.
Spiked has a wonderful article which enumerates the many scientific advances which would never have enhanced and saved so many lives, had we always heeded the precautionary principle. Among them are: Aspirin, antibiotics, contraceptive pills, open heart surgery, blood transfusions, the internal combustion engine, airplanes, vaccines, x-rays…just imagine how much poorer our quality of life would be without them. Imagine, also, what the world would be like if we rejected advances with the power to harm a small percentage of the population, modern transportation being the classic example, but also most lifesaving medical procedures and drugs.
It’s also important to remember that many of those who invoke the precautionary principle do so not out of concern for the masses, but for political purposes. They also tend to invoke it selectively – e.g, PCB’s in baby bottles are ‘proof’ that bottles are bad, but PCB’s in breastmilk are, mysteriously, not a cause for concern. Thimerosal in vaccines, despite the Institute of Medicine’s statement rejecting a connection with autism, is OMG A TOXIN WE’RE INJECTING INTO WIDDLE BABIES!, but the unregulated, non-FDA supervised potion their herbalist gave them? Just fine.
Keep in mind that the burden of proof is only to a reasonable standard. After all, it’s impossible to conclusively prove a negative (hence the wording, “evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship” in the IOM statement above). This opens the door for the naysayers to continue to demand more and more proof, bringing up more ond more empty objections to something they don’t like. At some point, the scientific community must put its foot down and get on with implementing the new (or continuing the old, if that’s what was objected to).
A great atricle on the subject illustrates this:
The absence of an effect can never be proved, in the way that I cannot prove that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. All I can say are two things: firstly, sustained observation over the past 20 years has revealed no evidence of their presence, and secondly the existence of fairies, in my garden or elsewhere, is very unlikely on a priori grounds. This is how science works – precisely in accord with the principles of Karl Popper that hypotheses cannot be proved, only refuted.
I suggest reading the whole thing.
*On a personal note, my mother has 2 siblings who were severely affected by the DES my grandmother took during their pregnancies. I am certainly not making light of the possibility that deleterious effects may crop up only after many years of use. But such instances are exceedingly rare, and claiming that things that have been around for decades and have shown no such effects – aluminum and thimerosal in vaccines, infant formula, or GM food – are still in the experimental stage, is merely anti-science masquerading as the precautionary principle.